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How Listerine Reframed a Problem and watched their profits soar

Listerine Ad

It's 1920 and 2 brothers are discussing the marketing of their family -owned product Listerine.


At the time it was a jack-of-all-trades product, marketed as a generic household antiseptic that people used to clean their floors and scrub their feet.

That is until the son of the owner of the company, Gerald Lambert, found an old Latin phrase in a medical journal.


Gerald recounts:

"I asked him if Listerine was good for bad breath."

He excused himself for a moment and came back with a big book of newspaper clippings.

He sat in a chair and I stood looking over his shoulder. He thumbed through the immense book. “Here it is, Gerard. It says in this clipping from the British Lancet that in cases of halitosis . . .”

I interrupted, “What is halitosis?”

“Oh,” he said, “that is the medical term for bad breath.”

“There,” I said,” is something to hang our hat on.”


From there Listerine targeted bad breath not just as an inconvenience; (At a time when it was impolite to talk about bodily functions) but a a source of social embarrassment and rejection.


And Halitosis (unpleasant breath) was framed as a medical condition that could be solved and of course, the solution was Listerine mouthwash.


And in just 7 years their annual sales increased by 4000%

Problem selling, or problem-centric selling, is the art of pinpointing a customer’s need or problem before they’ve even become aware of it and building awareness around that problem.


Essentially, you are selling the problem you solve.


You see, it doesn't matter how good your services are - if your customer doesn't know how to articulate what they need help with they won't look for a solution.

The first step is to Help Your Buyer Understand Their Problem


Copywriters use the P.A.S framework (Problem-Agitate-Solution)


Identifying pain isn't always easy most customer talk about their problem but often describe the symptom, not the root cause or they focus on the wrong problem which results in a dilution of your message.


For example

Imagine your customer catches the 8am train but the 5 carriage train is always full. They might say the problem is it's always overcrowded and they can't fit on the train.

So you provide people to push the customers onto the train rather than supplying more regular trains or more carriages.

So rather than just listening to what your customers say - you need to dig deeper and discover what problems your customers are having in real life

I've often talked about mining your customer reviews - look for common words that describe the challenges they are facing and identify the underlying impact of the problem.

And if you don’t have customer reviews take a peek at your competitor’s reviews. Study both the positive to see what works and analyse negative ones to avoid repeating mistakes.

See what your prospects are talking about on social media look for recurring questions and frustrations.


Agitate: Agitate is crafting specific stories that resonate with your customers so they can see themselves in your message.


To encourage customers to take action and view your product as an essential investment magnify the consequences of inaction and highlight the long-term repercussions of not addressing the problem. Show that you get them and mirror their experiences and feelings.

For Listerine they tapped into social fear and how halitosis was keeping "Edna" from being her very best self.


Solution: Tap into the value your customer gets from using your service,

Reframe the problem as a chance for customers to improve their lives.


Apple uses the "So What Principle" to highlight the problem as a solution.

Listerine didn't create bad breath they just learned how to put a name to their customer's problem.


Find something to "hang your hat" on.

Identify your customer's problem and position your product as the ultimate solution.

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